Writing 07: Censorship

After going through all the discussions and readings on censorship, the only thing that is clear is that there is no easy answer. There are too many questions regarding what forms censorship, if we are to censor at all, should take. Where should we censor? Who should be in charge of deciding what to censor? To what extent should we censor and how can we ensure that censorship does not become too authoritarian? How do we ensure that we protect freedom of speech while also protecting society against online threats?

Before tackling some of the more nuanced questions, it is worth discussing what exactly freedom of speech is and where it should and can be applied. It is clear that the idea of freedom of speech, which in simplified terms means the freedom to say whatever you want, applies to both spoken and written language, be it human speech or newspaper publications. Thus it makes sense to also apply “freedom of speech” to the internet. However, the state and reach of the internet is far different from that of normal speech and writing. Because everyone has access to the internet, ideas spread much more quickly then they used to in the past. While this can be a very good things as it facilitates productive discourse online, it also means that really bad ideas get spread quite easily as well. Consider the anti-vaccination movement, which utilizes private facebook groups online to spread misleading information, which can force families into dangerous situations, or consider false political ads on facebook that everyone can easily see, which has led to increased “mudslinging” among political candidates. It is important I think to recognize the dangers of free speech on the internet and to recognize that free speech requires special rules that other forms of speech do not need. Normal speaking, for example, only affects people in the vicinity, and relying on speaking face to face is 1) more difficult to arrange, and 2) requires the association of a face with an idea, which by nature suppresses many of the more outrageous opinions. Written speech, on the other hand, in the form of newspapers and publications either are vetted by editors and come from more professional sources which can be held accountable for misleading statements, or come from sources that people have to actively seek out, instead of simply seeing it everywhere you go like it is on the internet. Freedom of speech on the internet then could warrant greater regulation and censorship, as scary as the latter term sounds.

Aside from the spread of misleading ideas, there is are other benefits from online censorship. One big one is that we can potentially detect terrorist threats before they happen, which can help save lives. Another is to prevent the spread of dangerous ideas, such as the El Paso shooter’s Manifesto. Thus online censorship and regulation is more important than people often give it credit for, I think.

There are many dangers however to online censorship, particularly as we dive into the details. The first detail is who should be censoring and who has the right to censor? There are two primary answers to this. One obvious answer is the government, but another idea is that companies should be self-regulating and restrict their platforms. The government, I think, is the more natural answer to this problem, but at the end of the day not everyone trusts the government enough to properly censor the internet. Additionally, there is the danger of giving the government too much power, which can lead to a more authoritarian regime that threatens the spirit of democracy. The government, for example, could limit speech coming from the opposite party, thus allowing one party to win elections year after year and limit the spread of dissenting ideas. Thus, the government may be a simpler, more logical answer than companies, but the government is ultimately not 100% objective.

Conversely, it is not clear that companies should be in charge of censorship either because companies ultimately are private entities. It is weird then to give companies the power to dictate how society should think. More importantly is that without a central body dictating what can and can’t be said, different platforms will take different stances. Twitter, for example, completely bans political ads, preferring not to mess at all with the problem of fact-checking political statements. Facebook, on the other hand, chooses to not mess with the problem at all either by taking the opposite stance: they allow any political ad on their site and will not remove misleading ads. It is clear then that putting the decision of internet censorship into the hands of private entities will just lead to a complex mess of differing standards and will only muddle what is or isn’t considered a misuse of free speech. On the other hand, one of the tenets of american society is “voting with the dollar.” Theoretically, if a company like facebook takes a “bad” stance on censorship that the public disagrees with, the company should take a negative financial hit from boycotts or negative press. While this may or may not work in practice, it is at least some limitation on what companies can do.

Online censorship then is a necessary evil. It is fairly evident that some sort of regulation is needed, but there are too many questions that need to be resolved before we can properly implement it. Still, it is better to do a little bit of something, then nothing at all, and the government should be stepping in and implementing some sort of regulations which will at least give us a starting point to either pull back from or moving forwards with. It is a slippery slope, but a necessary step in order to keep society safe.